Should Yale (and Other Elite Colleges) Require Students Take a Kobayashi Maru Test?

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When it comes to “The Game,” precedent has no say. The annual Yale-Harvard ritual evokes a rivalry that transcends the ages, as well as the win-loss record of the season’s previous games. So it was in 1979 when the heavily favored undefeated Yale Bulldogs fell to the Harvard Crimson in the season’s ultimate game by the score of 22-7.

Even the final score means nothing. In 1968, when Harvard scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds to earn a tie, the Harvard Crimson headline read: “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”

This year, the 136th edition of The Game was much anticipated. ESPN had it moved up an hour to a noon start since the Yale Bowl has no lights. Yale, with a record of 8-1, scoring an average of 37.4 points-per-game and fighting for the Ivy League title, was the odds-on favorite to defeat Harvard, losers of four straight. Was anyone surprised, then, that the first half ended with Harvard beating the Bulldogs by a solid 15-3 margin?

The halftime show changed everything.

After both bands cleared the field and as the annual George H. W. Bush honorees were being announced, several commonly dressed individuals walked assertively into the center of the field from each of the four corners.

At first, they looked to be part of the ceremony. Then it appeared they were nothing more than merry pranksters. After all, The Game has been the venue of many a delightful and memorable MIT stunt. Within minutes, though, it became apparent what it really was.

It was a throwback. An archaic expression reminiscent of a scene from Scott Johnston’s popular book Campusland (think Animal House meets 1984). Not to be outdone, Yale officials decided to channel their inner Doonesbury (think M*A*S*H the movie meets M*A*S*H the TV series).

It was a surreal juxtaposition.

And that made Yale President Peter Salovey’s words from just a few days earlier all the more relevant…

On the morning of the preceding Thursday, the President’s face strained as he searched for precisely the most perfect phrase. His initial question to the Dean’s Panel on Leadership would not only launch the inaugural session of Yale’s annual Alumni Assembly & Convocation, but set the tone for the entire weekend.

“Are our students resilient?” he asked before immediately apologizing for the implied generalization. Salovey, who earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale in 1986, then posed a contrapositive as way of explanation.

“Earlier in this football season, we all learned the power of resiliency when the Bulldogs, down by two touchdowns late in the game against Richmond, rallied to score twice in the final 90 seconds to win 28-27,” said the University President.

He then lamented that, in accepting the best of the best, perhaps Yale students lack one important trait: failure. For it is only by failing that we learn to cope with failure, learn to build resiliency and, ultimately, learn to build character vital to supporting and leading a sustainable community.

Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, a Harvard grad, said it more succinctly: “Football doesn’t build character. It reveals character.” Then again, Levy studied English, not psychology, so he tends to be more certain of his words.

Indeed, it was Levy’s team that has forever defined resiliency. The 1990-1993 Buffalo Bills are the only NFL team to go to four straight Super Bowls. That’s not what made them resilient. What made them resilient is that they lost every one of those Super Bowls. Failure did not dissuade them. It inspired them.

Was that the resiliency Salovey was referring to? Perhaps. For it was universally agreed on by the panel of distinguished Yale deans that the fields of sport offer the best environment to teach resiliency, to teach young adults that failure is a necessary part of growth, instrumental to both life and learning. You can scoff off a poor grade since few if any see it, but to fail in the public arena, now that’s real failure.

Upon hearing Salovey suggest incoming students lack a portfolio of failure, you might immediately conclude, “Well, why not just change the admissions standards and accept more students with a demonstrable record of failures?”

Aye, there’s the rub. For, wouldn’t the more creative students find a loophole to this requirement? In doing so, they could paint a picture of a personal Thermopylae they had to suffer (before, of course, their ultimate grand victory over the more powerful Persians).

Yes, adding a “Describe your most horrific failure (in no more than 250 words)” essay question to the application would only yield innumerable “how I turned lemons into lemonade” stories.

It’s just like when you’re in a job interview and you’re asked to name your greatest weakness. Out comes things like “I’m too friendly,” or “I’m too loyal” or “I tend to work more than most.”

Every weakness is a strength. Every failure is a success.

The answer, therefore, is not to change the application process, but to change the student experience. Make failure a graduation requirement.

That doesn’t quite get to the heart of the quest for resiliency to which Salovey alludes. You don’t want mere failure. You want failure that challenges the nature of the student and, in its course, improves that student’s character. In other words, Yale should require every student take a Kobayashi Maru test.

For those less familiar with Star Trek, the Kobayashi Maru test represents a no-win situation every cadet must endure before graduating from Star Fleet Academy. The purpose of this test is to ensure a potential captain – a potential leader – will remain calm even as the ship is disintegrating and death looms certain.

Why is this critical to leadership? Because, no matter how bad the circumstances, how impossible the odds, there’s still a chance. Without calm and deliberate (you might even say dispassionate) leadership, however, that chance will be forfeited…

And “forfeit” was what was on of minds of the more enlightened spectators in attendance at the Yale Bowl on Saturday, November 23, 2019.

Not at first. As the half-time sit-in began, the first impression from most of the crowd was a wry “isn’t that cute” smile. The loud speakers continued to play the usual festive football music, as if to reinforce the point this was all part of the show.

The antic no doubt brought back nostalgic memories for many an alum, whether it be the Vietnam War sit-ins, the Black Panther demonstrations or the anti-Apartheid protests. “Ah, glory be the age of youth, when we were indestructible.”

Not that all those sitting at midfield were students. Officially, the event was staged by students from Harvard and Yale, but alumni and other onlookers took part.

After several minutes, though, those smiles turned to anxious frowns. The music went silent. The teams broke from their second-half warm-up routines and decided to surrender the field by going back into their respective locker rooms.

Meanwhile, not only was campus security not doing anything to remove the disruptors, but the yellow vested authority allowed crowds to rush the field to join the squatters. Rather than politely ending, the situation was broadly escalating.

It was now a mob. Reasonable people thought the better of it and left. That would count as the second worst decision made by people that day.

Soon a voice, in regular intervals, began announcing with all the dry emotion of a NASA launch commentator, “Out of respect for both teams, please return to your seats.”

As if to emphasize insolence, the trespassers shouted back, “OK, Boomer!”

To which, the Boomers in the stands, striving to capture the obvious humor, rejoined, “Get off my lawn!”

But humor could not win on this day. Anger rose victorious. With irony coming in a close second.

You see, many in attendance likely would have been sympathetic to the various causes promoted by the demonstrators. Indeed, had they chosen the tailgates in the parking lot to make their statement, they would have been more fondly received.

But right there, right at that time, with sunlight fading and their recalcitrance laid bare, each passing minute eroded the sympathy of the crowd. It was becoming quite real that, should Yale officials fail to coax them to leave the field, the Bulldogs would have to forfeit the game and any hopes of winning the Ivy League Championship.

Whatever their causes, these protesters would have only succeeded in destroying a lifetime of dreams and hopes of the dozens of young men who had worked so hard to get where they were right then and right there.

Most of the crowd did not feel comfortable being forced to be co-conspirators in such a travesty.

The “Emperor Has No Clothes” moment for the SJW movement?

That realization may have been understood far beyond New Haven. Barstool Sports tweeted: “Yale-Harvard is under delay because of a student protest. We’ve hit peak 2019.” For Boomers, this is Millennial-speak meaning “SJW has Jumped the Shark.” Hence, irony.

Finally, after some 45 minutes, the yellow vests, having doubled with reinforcements, surrounded the agitants. Those mercurial participants – the casual pranksters – fled as quickly as they had arrived. The stalwart originals – the true protesters – remained seated on the artificial turf. Eventually, security led them away. In all 42 were arrested, including Hollywood actor and Yale graduate Sam Waterson.

To extend on Salovey’s thoughts, when one hasn’t experienced failure, one begins to develop a sense of entitlement. It’s an “I’m always right” kind of attitude. It leads to an utter lack of respect for others.

This is not resilience. It’s rudeness.

The Yale football team hammered home the point. Down by two touchdowns with less than a minute-and-a-half to go in the game, the Bulldogs could have simply blamed their fate on the protesters. That’s not resilience. Resilience doesn’t mean saying you’re a winner. Resilience means going out there, fighting through inevitable failure, and winning despite the odds.

Calm, cool, behaving as if they’d been there before (remember Richmond), Yale did score two touchdowns to tie the game in its waning seconds. This, though, would be no repeat of 1968. With Dartmouth winning, a Yale tie would mean losing the Ivy League Championship.

Yale had to win. But they were fighting two foes – man, in the form of a determined Harvard team intent on demonstrating its own resilience (as it had done so many times before); and nature, in the form of the fast approaching darkness (courtesy of the one-hour delay due to a pleasant prank turned seriously wrong).

Under gloom of night, the Sons (& Daughters) of Eli rush the field to celebrate their resilient champions.

History has now forever etched on this day a new classic tale. It’s a tale of two eternal rivals, a tale of shared resiliency and, ultimately, a never-ending tale that, though Harvard’s team had fought to the end, Yale did win (in the second overtime on the cusp of day descending into night).

The difference between civil disobedience and civil disruption is the difference between oratory and anarchy. President Salovey grasps the wisdom of this distinction, but is constrained to straddle the fine line between the two opposing extremes. The Game, however, may have provided an opportunity for all to see precisely what he means.

The gridiron men of Yale have now twice passed the Kobayashi Maru test, the comeback against Harvard being the most lasting and significant. Would that those who made the choice to jeopardize this have a real opportunity to enjoy discovering their own Kobayashi Maru test.

The Power of Losing Positively

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“Into each life some rain must fall.” Do you recall when you first heard this time-honored adage? Recording artists from Ella Fitzgerald to the Ink Spots to Queen have crooned serenades featuring this famous phrase. It was referenced in Steve Martin’s movie “My Blue Heaven.” But the true source of this inspired wisdom harks back to the early America of the nineteenth century. For it was, in 1842 – undoubtedly on a dark and dreary day – that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sat down at his desk and penned his classic poem “The Rainy Day.”

What might have moved Longfellow to write these words? Perhaps he still mourned the loss of his first wife Mary, who died in 1831. Maybe he had become despondent over his near decade long courtship of Frances, the woman who would eventually become his second wife. What ever the source, the expression packs power. It’s the kind of power the Continue Reading “The Power of Losing Positively”

Exploring New Personal Characters

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College isn’t so much about learning as it is about discovering. Sure, we explore a particular field of study because we find it intellectually stimulating. The true exploration, however, is the journey we embark upon within our very souls. The newfound freedom that comes with the college experience and the attendant releasing of inhibitions allows us to realize – and, if we are fortunate enough, become – the character we’ve always wanted to become. And if it turns out we don’t like that character (or simply grow out of it), we can shed it immediately upon graduation. (Of course, we always retain the option to dust it off and put that cloak back on come reunion time.)

For a variety of good and not-so-good reasons, high school presents itself more as a Continue Reading “Exploring New Personal Characters”

The Annual Thanksgiving Mudbowl

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mudbowl-1434436-1598x1062Bring an old weathered football up to your nose, close your eyes, and take a good whiff. Can you smell it? Do images of sweaty muddied gruff men, caked with sweat and blood, move in slow motion within your brain? Do your muscles tighten in pleasant anticipation at the thought of the gridiron? If so, then congratulations. You are part of a dying breed, a member of a secret society that long ago closed its doors to new applicants.

Well, not exactly. Those doors  remain open today and they will forever stay open. It’s just that, in an era of prefabricated microwave cooking, no one wants to go through the Continue Reading “The Annual Thanksgiving Mudbowl”

Will Bush Use the No-Huddle?

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the February 7, 1991 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259The following might have been more apparent if the Buffalo Bills would have won the Superbowl, but the concept holds nonetheless.

In the week prior to each of the three playoff games in which the Buffalo Bills participated, sports reporters from across the nation asked Head Coach Marv Levy if he intended to use his quick scoring no-huddle offense from the outset. With a poker face, Levy regularly answered, Continue Reading “Will Bush Use the No-Huddle?”

Mary Anne was Wrong! The Truth Behind Character and Destiny

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Pondering the meaning of character one evening, I stumbled upon the much quoted citation from George Eliot (whose real name was Mary Anne Evans) in her 1176484_94344918_novel_character_royalty_free_stock_xchng_300masterpiece The Mill on the Floss (1860): “Character is Destiny.” Curiosity getting the better of me, and knowing the exertion would prove effortless, I dug deeper to discover the full context of the quote. It revealed a wonderful irony. It also led to a deeper mystery.

Here’s what Mary Anne wrote:

“Character,” says Novalis, in one of his questionable aphorisms – “Character is Destiny.”

First, let’s get to the beautiful piece of irony. Ol’ Mary Anne apparently didn’t even like Continue Reading “Mary Anne was Wrong! The Truth Behind Character and Destiny”